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Ain't Half Hard, Mum

Though he has at last wielded the axe, belatedly dumping his now ex party chairman, Rishi Sunak’s been making a harsh discovery. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, he’s finding out the hard way how much more difficult his current job is than his last one.

As Chancellor, all he had to do was get his sums right, then every now and then pop his head over the parapet to read out his homework.

As Prime Minister, he has to duck and weave on a good day, and engage in crisis management on a bad one. Sometimes the two at once.

Since taking office he has personally outpolled his party, though that wouldn’t be hard, but you wonder how long that little sliver of good luck will last.

In fact, luck is the vital ingredient for any successful incumbent at Number Ten, and there’s no escaping it’s been in short supply in Sunak’s case.

After the turbulence of the Johnson/Truss imbroglio he faces a parliamentary party that’s lost its bearings.

The very idea of doing the bidding of the whips feels like a relic of a bygone era. Hence the regular swerves in the face of endless backbench revolts.

Then there’s the uncomfortable reality that many of his ministers owe their jobs more to loyalty to the last but one Tory leader than to their own talents.

Sunak could have made a clean sweep, but that risked making too many relatively powerful enemies.

An oft quoted and colourful line from one-time US President and Boris namesake Lyndon Johnson springs to mind.

He said of a particularly formidable foe: ‘It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.’

Awkwardly, Nadhim ‘I-didn’t-mean-to-not-pay-my-taxes’ Zahawi has more or less been managing both ever since the scandal first erupted.

The clincher was probably the nation’s top taxman’s take. That you don’t get fined for making a genuine mistake, but you do if it looks like accidentally on purpose.

His clear implication being this wasn’t so much a case of it’ll all come out in the wash, dear, as hold your hand out, naughty boy.

To recap: While Zahawi was, briefly, Chancellor of the Exchequer, his tax affairs were being investigated. And he was found guilty of deliberate underpayment.

Which begs questions. When did Rishi Sunak find out? Surely Sir Humphrey knew – so why didn’t he pass on the intel?

Clearly the Cabinet Secretary was in an invidious position, but a predecessor in the job has risen damningly to his defence.

Gus O’Donnell, who ran the civil service in the Blair/Brown/Cameron years, says the poor guy doing his job now ‘is having it really tough’. And what’s more:

‘The reason he’s having it tough is because ministers – as the allegations suggest – have behaved badly.’

In the process, it’s worth noting, they’re not setting much of an example to all those serial rebels on the Tory back benches.

It’s been suspected for days that Sunak was furious with Zahawi, both for not letting on, and for bringing back into view his own wife’s former tax arrangements.

Fully above board, yes, but not everyone sees it that way. And optics, as the Prime Minister’s being forcibly reminded on a daily basis, do matter.

He’s also grappling every day with the dire state of the British economy.

Of course the pandemic and Putin’s putrid behaviour are huge factors, neither of which is his fault.

Nor can he be held individually responsible for what the opposition say is twelve years of Tory misrule.

However, he was up for leaving the European Union, and Brexit’s woeful legacy is now plain for all to see.

This is not a Remainer’s remoan, just the hard fact spelt out by the official number crunchers.

The Office for Budget Responsibility, clue’s in the name, calculates that leaving is digging a hundred-billion-pound hole in the nation’s pocket.

There’s also the hole in the workforce, well over a million, significantly down to the post-Brexit ending of free movement of people.

Against that, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt tried to whistle a happy tune on Friday, insisting the bonfire of EU regulations will release us all.

But even as he promised sunny uplands and loads of prosperity at some point in the future, ministers were working on working round the lack of labour.

Overseas students, who’re currently only allowed twenty hours’ paid employment a week, may in future get the green light to do a lot more.

If nothing else, that would help plug yawning gaps, notably in shops, restaurants and hotels.

It would, however, stick in the craw of Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who’s frantically pulling in the opposite direction.

Not that she’s exactly flavour of the month, having not so long ago had to resign for being careless with security.

Could well be Sunak’s regretting reappointing her, given her department’s track record on illegal immigration. Sketchy’s putting it mildly.

He may also be wishing his deputy Dominic Raab were better able to hold his tongue, given the mounting tally of allegations that he’s a bully.

Same as with Nadhim Zahawi, the Prime Minister’s line is that official inquiries must be allowed to take their course before he does anything.

The difficulty being that innocent till proven guilty is all very well in theory, but in practice the court of public opinion has already given the thumbs down.

A majority rather than a unanimous verdict, but it’s enough.

On taking office just three months ago, Sunak promised a government of integrity, professionalism and accountability.

Given how things have been panning out, it might have been better to say he’d do his best to achieve these aims, rather than state outright that it would be so.

He’s still looking pretty chipper, mind, and so are those around him, but their body language could be surprisingly instructive.

Boffins at St Andrews Uni in Scotland, who’ve been checking out our ancestors’ methods of communication, have come up with unexpected results.

They’d already clocked that great apes use some eighty different gestures to tell one another things.

So, the researchers wondered, is this form of communication the logical precursor of human language? And, if so, do they overlap?

To test their theories, they showed people videos of ape gestures, not really expecting them to make much sense of them.

But to their astonishment, well over half the time the volunteers interpreted the animals’ gestures perfectly accurately.

This strongly suggests we still make much more use of signals than we realised.

And unlike what politicians have been known to come out with, this language is generally truthful.

Some of it is pretty obvious. Like pointing a finger to the ground as a way of saying ‘come here’. Or stroking the mouth to ask for food.

Other bits are less so, such as tearing strips from a leaf with teeth, as a form of flirting.

Still it’s worth looking out for telltale signs as our party leaders slug it out at Prime Minister’s question time.

Shame father-of-seven Boris Johnson’s no longer there to give the game away. As, apparently, shaking a tree is a way of saying ‘let’s mate’.

Watch Peter’s report HERE Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News.


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